RI PowerPlayer: Ken Block

Monday, April 29, 2013


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Fighting the Moderate fight and striving to rid Rhode Island of the Master Lever: RI PowerPlayer Ken Block.

Every Monday, GoLocal shines the spotlight on one individual who is making a large impact on Rhode Island. This week, we sat down with Ken Block, head of Rhode Island's Moderate Party and a dominant player in the movement to get rid of the Master Lever.

You’re the President of the Moderate Party and one of the leading voices behind the abolition of the Master Lever. Talk about your efforts to push this topic to the forefront of State House politics this year. And, with the state’s economy still struggling to improve, why do you believe now is the time for lawmakers to focus on this issue?

Rhode Island government’s failure to address common sense issues like the Master Lever are what drove me into politics. Everyone knows this system is broken and wrong, yet for 30 years we have had to struggle with this. The sad fact is when it comes to common-sense reforms like Separation of Powers, restoring legislative oversight to the Ethics Commission, and the Master Lever it takes years of fighting the legislature to get them to do the right thing.

But it is worth the fight. When I had the chance to help evaluate actual ballots in Burrillville, I knew it would offer the kind of data-driven facts that would be hard to ignore. These facts show that the Master Lever does harm to both voters and candidates. We’ve made the data available on our website—www.masterlever.org—to drive the advocacy effort and create a single point of focus where groups as diverse as the Tea Party and the Sierra Club can guide their members to come and advocate together for the elimination of the Master Lever.

More than 100 Rhode Island citizens came together to testify for the elimination of the Lever to the House Judiciary Committee. The physical presence of so many advocates—and the lack of a single person testifying to keep the Master Lever—produces a pressure that the legislature ignores at its peril.

A common sense issue like the Master Lever, when left unaddressed for decades, contributes to a broken state government. You have confusion and frustration at the polls and it leads to people losing trust in their government. It tells the outside world the state is backwards and that the government is not fair and accessible and that Rhode Island isn’t a good place to do business. This perception is a reality in Rhode Island, as evidenced by insider deals like 38 Studios. Good government goes hand in hand with a healthy economic environment. You can’t have one without the other.

You’ve said that you believe economic development “requires that RI get its fundamentals correct.” Talk about some of the changes you would like to see at the state level and the biggest issues you believe are preventing Rhode Island from fully recovering from the recession.

We will not be able to fix our economy and compete effectively with other states if we don’t fix some fundamental problems with our state government.

As an example, Rhode Island is in the process of paying down a very large deficit in our Unemployment Insurance (UI) fund, and replacing that deficit with a surplus over 10 years. The total swing comes close to $100,000,000 a year, or almost a billion dollars over the decade, paid for partly by increasing Unemployment Insurance taxes paid by companies and partly by adjusting benefits paid out to recipients. The problem, however, is that this deficit has been driven almost exclusively by the heaviest users of the UI fund, and that problem has not been well addressed. Chronic heavy corporate users of UI are essentially using the fund to help subsidize their payroll operations, which is unfair to the businesses which don’t use the fund. UI should be insurance to assist employees who, through no fault of their own, lose their jobs. If we can lower the cost of UI insurance to our businesses, we will substantially improve one of the factors that keeps RI in the bottom of business competitiveness rankings.

This similar kind of common sense analysis can be applied to multiple other fundamental areas. The cost of Rhode Island’s TDI insurance is very high, and I believe that government and consumers should be asking why. This insurance is mandatory and is paid for by employees right out of the paychecks, to the tune of $720 a year for anyone making $60,000 or more a year. Someone making $30,000 pays $360/year.

If the cost of TDI can be cut in half—bringing it down to the going rate in the private insurance market—that will put money right into the pockets of consumers.

The House Judiciary Committee voted to restore the power of the ethics commission over General Assembly members, a move you supported. Why do you believe this is a step in the right direction for Rhode Island?

This episode was a stark reminder to all of our citizens that our state government is a mess. A legislator who supported the bill had to use a trick to get it out of committee because the House leadership didn’t want to bring it to an up-or-down vote. Why? Because many legislators like the idea of not having to answer to a strong Ethics Commission but don’t want to actually vote against the bill and look like they are anti-reform.

So instead of taking an honest vote and doing right by the citizens of Rhode Island, we have an exercise in playing political power games. The bill seems to be voted out, but suddenly the Speaker’s legal eagles make an excuse to justify keeping it in committee for further study. It is shameful.

The voters in 1986 made it abundantly clear that they desired better government and accountability from our legislature and asked for the creation of an Ethics Commission to oversee ethics in our government. Accountability in government is a foundational building block for our quality of life and our economy. And accountability does not come only from a re-empowered Ethics Commission. It also comes from competitive elections and a more balanced legislature.

Take us through a day in your life.

I get up way too early in the morning, and usually spend that time working on political and advocacy issues. Then it’s time to help get the kids are off to school (5th and 3rd grade) and from there my day depends on whether or not politics are on the calendar.

If I get an office day, I split my time between administrative, marketing and technical issues (I still love actually getting to do some computer programming from time to time). I am a big multi-tasker and am often doing many different things at once.

Politics intrudes with frequency on my days and can require anything from speaking to small or large groups, candidate recruitment, advocacy organizing around a specific issue (like the Master Lever) and recently, heading up the RI Taxpayers organization.

Tell us something nobody knows about you.

I was part of a particularly winning beer pong team in college, extending my love of racquet sports into the social realm.

Quick Hitters

Role Model: My Dad

Favorite Restaurant: My wife and I enjoy visiting as many different restaurants in the area as we can get to.

Favorite Part of Spring in Rhode Island: I love cutting my lawn, and look forward to the weekly ability to be totally alone with my thoughts while striving for the perfect cut.

Best Book You've Read in the Last Year: Karl Wadensten suggested I buzz through Who Moved my Cheese, which is short read dedicated to helping people recognize that change is happening and how to deal with change. I liked it so much I had my 3rd and 5th graders read it, and also had everyone in my office do so as well.

Advice for the Next Ken Block: Do not ever say “How hard can that be?”—because in all likelihood it will be much more difficult than you could ever imagine. 


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